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Death of Gaddafi: winning the war, but what about the peace?

Muammar Gaddafi’s death brings to a close the war for liberation that has wracked Libya for much of this year, but pushes to the forefront a host of new issues that have only just remained under the surface, particularly over the past few weeks. How these issues are handled will shape Libya’s foreseeable future.

There are a range of criteria that indicate the likely success or failure of a post-conflict state, high among which are ethnic or tribal distinction, and institutional capacity. Institutional capacity includes not just a functioning administration and the provision of basic services, but the extent to which rule of law is embedded in society and the legitimacy of ruling groups or individuals.

In cases where institutional capacity is weak, there tend to be few agreed rules by which an emerging society can organise itself. The opportunities, then, for resolving disputes peacefully are few, with a consequent tendency for parties to retreat to a war mentality, of which the dispute is seen as an extension. That is, groups that have been involved in a war may come to see postwar opponents as a continuation of the type of “evil” they were originally battling and, hence, a necessary target for further conflict.

Many observers might claim that the National Transitional Council, which has international recognition as the legitimate governing authority, resolves the issue of capacity. However, its functional ability remains weak and its legitimacy is not accepted by important anti-Gaddafi forces.

According to the strategic analysis group Stratfor, the NTC’s claim to be the legitimate representative of anti-Gaddafi forces began to unravel almost as soon as its fighters entered Tripoli in late August. Anti-Gaddafi fighters within Tripoli have not recognised its authority while groups in the south-western city of Zentan and in Misrata, between Benghazi and Tripoli, have also questioned the authority of the Benghazi-based NTC.

Not only is the NTC beset by doubters in these other regions, indicating the somewhat geographically specific character of the NTC, even in the east of Libya, where the NTC writ could be assumed to be at its strongest, there is dissent. Tripoli has become something of a microcosm of this situation, with several armed groups occupying sections of the city, refusing to accept the formal command of the NTC.

The NTC had said that, with the fall of Sirte, it would proceed to form a transitional government ahead of elections. However, the formation of such a government and representation within it will test what unity there is among the anti-Gaddafi forces.

Not only are there allegiances based on regional and tribal differences, but between major ethnic groups of Arabs and Berbers, Islamists and secularists and between ideological groups that for decades have existed only as shadows in Gaddafi’s Libya. Even tribal groups once loyal to Gaddafi will want to participate in the new government, and will need to be accommodated or else present a continuing potential for instability.

That each of these groups is heavily armed only enhances the possibility that, should there be disagreement — which is likely — it could quickly escalate. The traditional answer by post-conflict governments with low levels of legitimacy and organisational capacity, is to close political space — to start to replicate the authoritarian governments they have replaced.

All hope, of course, that the transition to the post-Gaddafi era is smooth and trouble free and that the Arab Spring blossoms in Libya. But the harsh reality is, while such an outcome is possible, winning the “peace” is always a much more complex task than simply winning the war.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University

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